Twin Peaks: Part 12

Frustration is endemic to the television serial.  One of the great joys of the serial is the way the viewer’s interest is propelled forward by cliffhangers and unanswered questions.  We all know the feeling of “oh shit, there’s a new Breaking Bad tonight!”  There’s tremendous pleasure in the cycle of being frustrated by a cliffhanger, having thoughts of anticipation building towards the next episode, and finally sitting down for the big revelation.  Sometimes a show will tease you: postpone the awaited event or answer a question with another question.  Skillful play with audience expectations can be deployed to great effect.

Lynch has made this dynamic a theme of Twin Peaks: The Return, and in part 12 it reaches a fever pitch.  A brief perusal of the internet indicates that a lot of people couldn’t stand it.  I’m not surprised.  He takes it so far that it reminds me of Haneke’s Funny GamesFunny Games is an anti-thriller that aims to punish its audience for their blood-thirsty genre expectations.  It shows us none of the action but all of the suffering.  There’s a 7+ minute scene of someone who’s been shot bleeding out on the floor.  I deliberately went to see the English-language version of Funny Games primetime Friday night at the big multiplex with as large a crowd as possible, because the audience reaction is the whole point.  I was not disappointed.  During the above mentioned 7+ minute scene, complete strangers in the audience started fighting with each other openly.  One guy stood up and threatened a group of teenagers that he would “stick all their heads up their asses.” Well played, Haneke.

In an analogous way, part 12 was anti-television.  God, where to begin.   The episode was entitled “Let’s rock,” which is an iconic line from the original series (spoken by The Arm).  Multiple storylines have built a good head of steam and we are getting close to October 1st in the show’s timeline, when we have been led to believe that the shit will hit the fan.  I think everyone expected an eventful episode.  I’ve even heard that Lynch and Frost deliberately leaked that this would be the most remarkable episode yet (someone leaked this, but we don’t know who for sure).  What we got instead wasn’t merely an audience tease; it was an all-out assault on our expectations.   The clearest way to make this case is to consider the way Audrey was reintroduced.  Sherilyn Fenn is listed in the show’s cast; we knew she would show up sooner or later.  I had seen various online comments this last week: “We’re getting down to the wire and so many things still need to happen!  So many characters haven’t even shown up yet!”   There was a lot of hope circulating that maybe Audrey will finally appear.  The show has been brutal about withholding gratification.  Basically none of the fan favorites from the original series are seeing heavy play, and when they do show up, it’s not in the way the audience wants them to.  When we finally get to hear Coop say “damn good cherry pie,” it’s overwhelmingly sad.  Audrey’s reintroduction goes beyond withholding, and approaches open hostility.  Lynch brought her back in the most abrasive way possible.  Her hen-pecked husband Charlie sits over a pile of work and complains about being sleepy while she angrily berates him because he’s not being helpful in tracking down her missing lover, Billy.  We don’t know any of the characters mentioned.  The scene goes on FOREVER.  Charlie makes a phone call (rotary dial, of course), there’s a big info dump, and we only hear his side of it.  He says “unbelievable, what you’re telling me!”, but then refuses to explain what he was told.  Audrey has a conniption.  My favorite line is when she yells at him to look in his crystal ball and find out where Billy is, and he replies, “Come on, Audrey, you know I don’t have a crystal ball.”   She emphasizes “You have no balls!  That’s why I’m in love with Billy!  That’s why I’m FUCKING Billy!”   And then when we do finally get to the roadhouse (where Audrey intended to look for Billy), instead of some kind of exposition of what’s up with Audrey, we switch to two entirely new characters talking about other characters we haven’t met.    I was cackling at this point.  Again: my reading is that he’s taken a structural feature of television serials in general and blown it up to the point of absurdity.  We love to be teased a little by a good TV show.  Lynch takes it past the breaking point several times over.

Another great scene involves Lynch himself and French actress Berenice Marlohe (she was a Bond girl in Skyfall).  Lynch often gets accused of various forms of misogyny.  I think that these critiques are ill-founded, but I’m not interested in litigating the issue right now.  A frequent accusation is that he likes to dress women up like 50’s pin ups and ogle them.  In this scene, he literally ogles Marlohe (in a pin up getup) for two solid minutes.  As for the episode as a whole, in this scene Lynch is really aggressively leaning into his critics.  Oh, you don’t like that?  You mean you don’t like it when I do THIS?!

Negative emotions often figure positively in aesthetic experiences.  Sadness and grief for tragedy, fear and disgust for horror, etc.  I’ve argued that we should understand these negative emotions as elements imbedded within complex aesthetic experiences, and that an overall aesthetic experience can be attractive partly in virtue of one or more of its elements being painful or otherwise aversive.  I think we can understand the frustrations of Twin Peaks according to this model.  Frustration is an unpleasant emotion, but imbedded in the right context, it can be quite pleasant.   Television ordinarily plays with frustration by teasing our expectations.  I’ve been engaging with David Lynch’s art since I was like 12 years old (thanks, Dad).   Part of the pleasure of approaching the new Twin Peaks episodes for me is that I still really, truly have no idea what the fuck he’s going to do.  True aesthetic surprise is an exhilarating experience that’s all too hard to come by now that we’ve passed through the postmodern singularity.   Last night’s episode really, truly surprised me.  The frustration that the narrative engendered wasn’t ultimately unpleasant for me, because it fed into this feeling of exhilarating surprise.  Like, “THAT’S HOW YOU’RE GONNA BRING AUDREY BACK!  OMG!”    I get the sense that people with overly rigid expectations didn’t share my enjoyment, and I think that’s part of the point as well.  Much like Haneke, Lynch is showing open hostility to a certain sort of audience.   He’s punishing those looking for nostalgia.

Game of Thrones thoughts (spoilers)

I’ve had mixed feelings about HBO’s takeover of creative control of Game of Thrones since the beginning of season 6.  On the one hand, Martin is in most respects a mediocre fantasy writer and the show is generally much better than the books.  He writes great characters, but he falls prey to the classic middle-books fantasy trap of burning through plot too fast and then loading up on filler (too many new, uninteresting characters, hundreds of pages of people being on the way to places).   I’m also not a big fan of ultra-gritty fantasy, with constant talk of hard cocks and so on.  I’ll take Robin Hobb and Brandon Sanderson over Martin any day of the week.

But on the other hand, the special appeal of HBO’s Game of Thrones does depend to a large extent on Martin’s influence– in particular, his constant subversion of narrative expectations.  Killing main characters, people on a revenge quest being killed before they achieve revenge, villains falling to other villains rather than to heroes, etc.  That’s what makes Game of Thrones what it Is.   The show has a unique ability to make you feel truly terrible, and that’s 90% of its appeal.

I really did not like season 6 very much.   It was too crowd pleasing, too readily satisfying.  It was like they finally were off Martin’s leash and the first thing they did was distance themselves from everything that made the show distinct.  I hated, hated, hated the way they brought back Jon Snow.  It was like “oh you thought your favorite character was dead, PSYCHE!  He’s fine!”   It didn’t even make sense.  All of a sudden Davos, whose primary character traits are an excess of caution and an abiding distrust of black magic, and who barely knows Jon Snow, is all gung ho in favor of using black magic to bring him back.    I’m not necessarily against the idea of bringing him back– indeed I’m sure Martin planned  something along those lines– but a cardinal rule of fantasy and horror fiction is that if someone is brought back from the dead via black magic they are never the same.  They carry the taint of death with them in some way.  In the HBO version, it’s like he’s immediately back to his old self, no harm done.  The only point I see of him having died in the first place is that his resurrection feeds into some kind of chosen one narrative relating to the Lord of Light.  But c’mon, TAINT OF DEATH, PLEASE.

This week, however, Game of Thrones became Game of Thrones again.  That devastating sea battle, beautifully timed to interrupt a kiss between fan favorites and disappoint the shit out of everyone chomping at the bit for some steamy action, was a true Game of Thrones turn.   And then Theon’s moment of cowardice, after all the work the show has done to rebuild respect for the character, was brilliant.  The action film-making was on par with the best battle sequences we’ve seen from the show.  I also really appreciated the body horror in the earlier Samwell/Jorah scene.  Welcome back, Thrones.

From the first book of the series (which I read well before the show was produced), it’s clear that the ultimate conflict will be between the old magics of fire and ice.  The dragons vs. the white walkers.  The series is predicated on a structural irony, where the Shakespearean machinations within Westeros are the narrative focus but we are constantly reminded that they are quite insignificant in the scope of the larger conflict that is slowly closing its jaws around the Seven Kingdoms.  The failing of the books is that Martin exhausted the interest of the machinations well before he was prepared to drop the hammer.  The series did not fall into this trap.   It elided all that boring crap.  Now there’s a question of whether it can execute the finale without Martin’s source material.   This week is the first time I’ve felt optimistic about the prospect.

Song to Song (no spoilers)

Song to Song is revelatory.  There’s something Malick has been trying to do for a while now, and I feel like he’s finally done it.

There are a number of tropes that are distinctive of his recent work: extreme angle shots, fisheye lens, aggressively subjective camerawork,  TWIRLING, bed sheets, couples chasing each other through sparsely decorated houses.  A lot of tomato critics respond with open mockery.   MORE TWIRLING FROM MALICK!  This doesn’t surprise me, really.  If you are unwilling or unable to engage with Malick’s recent work on its own terms, I can certainly see how it could come across as a parody of a pretentious art film.  Personally, I appreciate Malick’s not giving a fuck about what anyone thinks of the twirling.  He just keeps doubling down on it.

Song to Song reveals something deeper about what he’s trying to do with these tropes and also why many react to it so harshly.  He’s trying to capture private, intimate moments.  The sorts of things you only do when no one is watching.  This is very hard to do, because what makes a moment private and intimate is precisely its utter particularity and idiosyncrasy.  Romantic love is typically portrayed on film through more general representational categories.  To represent one character falling in love with another, a filmmaker might show the one surreptitiously watching the other doing something quietly remarkable, or might show the couple staring longingly into each other’s eyes , or might show the two triumphing over adversity as a team and then falling into each other’s arms.  The sorts of private, intimate moments that constitute the emotional progression of actual relationships are too peculiar, too uncomfortable, too illegible to be readily translated to the screen.  Song to Song is like 40% composed of exactly these sorts of moments, and I suspect that it makes a lot of viewers uncomfortable.   To engage with it on its own terms requires a level of vulnerability and openness from the viewer that many will be unwilling or unable to muster.  It’s just so fucking sincere.

I’m going to stay away from discussing too many details of the film.  I only just saw it yesterday.  Like all of Malick’s films, it needs to be seen more than once before one can even really begin to digest it.   I’ll say it’s clearly the best new release I’ve seen this year, and it’s better than anything I saw last year.  It bears a lot of structural similarities to To the Wonder.  I love To the Wonder, please don’t confuse me for a hater, but I would say this is much more fully realized work.  The acting is uniformly perfect, even Natalie Portman.  Michael Fassbender plays a sort of Lucifer character brilliantly.  Patti Fucking Smith is in the movie.  Iggy Pop is in the movie.  He films both moshing and twerking in full-on Malick style.

He says this is the last movie he’ll film without a script.  He’s got a war film coming out next. This I think corroborates my central evaluative thought: this movie is a culmination of this last phase of his career.  I am eagerly looking forward to watching it several more times over the next few months.

Reflections on Twin Peaks S03E08 (spoilers)

IMG_3825

 

It’s worth taking a minute to put S03E08 in a broader cultural context.  This week, Disney made news by firing directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller from the new Han Solo origin film.  Lord and Miller are very distinct comedic directors who no doubt were putting an auteurist stamp on the film.  Disney claimed that they were fired due to “creative differences,” which is a euphemism for “they refused to produce something suitably generic.”  Who did they hire to replace them?  Opie.  Ron “Never Made a Good Movie” Howard.  This actually puts me in a bind, as I swore a solemn vow many years ago to never watch another Ron Howard movie, and yet I don’t see myself skipping a Star Wars movie, no matter how deliberately mediocre.

This scenario echoes the firing of Edgar Wright from Ant-Man in 2015.  They hired someone with a very distinctive artistic vision, and then fired him because he was making a movie that expressed that vision.  Warner Bros. confirmed all our worst fears this week when they came out and explicitly said that they are going to try to avoid working with auteurist directors who insist on final cut.  They want tighter studio control over the creative process, precisely so that they can calibrate their productions for maximum profitability.

It is against this increasingly dystopian cultural milieu that Twin Peaks S03E08 aired.  The show’s audience—including me—had been lulled into complacency by four straight episodes that more or less followed the same set of characters with very deliberate pacing, punctuated by moments of acute horror.  I think most of us expected a slight escalation but pretty much more of the same.  What we got instead was the most avant garde thing in the history of television.   I want to take a minute to really appreciate Showtime for facilitating the rapturous aesthetic experience I had last night.  That episode couldn’t have been cheap.  Maybe Showtime has some sort of long game business plan where word of mouth Twin Peaks buzz leads to lots of new subscribers who then decide to sample Homeland but of course get hooked (because Homeland is amazing) and keep subscribing even after Twin Peaks ends.  Maybe.  But I want to believe that at some level this is just old school patronage.  Some well-situated people fought to just let David Lynch do whatever he wants and these heroes won out over the bean counters.  This wasn’t a business decision.  This was service to humanity.   Or so I’d like to think.

There was so much going on in this episode that I don’t even know where to start.  The White Lodge and Black Lodge apparently exist in an alternate dimension.  There is a long-standing “two worlds” motif in Lynch that began with his unproduced Ronnie Rocket screenplay, where electricity is in some manner the medium to pass between worlds.  We found this idea iterated in Lost Highway, where Fred Madison and Pete Dayton appear to switch places across parallel worlds through an electrical disturbance.   We get something similar in Mulholland Drive, with the waking world/dream world dichotomy.  The motif becomes very abstract in Inland Empire, but it’s still there.   Multiple Laura Derns.  Even in Blue Velvet you have the idealized suburban world/rotting underworld dichotomy.   Twin Peaks: The Return is shaping up like a summative work, where we are getting a more direct look at the nuts and bolts of the metaphysics that pervade Lynch’s whole corpus.

The idea doesn’t sound amazing on paper: the Trinity nuclear bomb test opened up a portal to the other dimension (or something like that).  (Edit for hindsight: electromagnetic pulse fuels an explosion of fertility in the Mother?)  But the execution!  Holy shit!  It would be impossible to overstate how incredible a sequence this was.  Again, part of what’s important here is that we were all lulled into complacency.  The show had established a rhythm and a rough trajectory.  The episode started out more or less on track.  Our expectations were reinforced.  Then we get a badass Nine Inch Nails performance in the middle of the episode, and all of a sudden all hell breaks lose and we dive into the heart of the mushroom cloud and get like 11 minutes of Stan Brakhage set to Penderecki’s infinitely haunting “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima.”  It felt like Lynch was making contact with Kubrick here.  For one thing, Kubrick uses several Penderecki pieces in The Shining for similar emotional effect.  More directly, there’s an obvious connection with Dr. Strangelove and also with the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which continues in the following sequence where the Experiment—seen previously in the glass box—spews forth a bunch of evil spirits, including BOB.

We learn that Laura Palmer is a manifestation (or host?) of a spirit of light that is created in the White Lodge as a counterpoint to BOB.  This revelation is mind-blowing, even if the details are still very unclear.  It sheds new light on the tagline “It’s happening again.”  My inference is that just as the BOB spirit jumps from host to host, so too does the Laura spirit.  The BOB spirit continuously hunts the Laura spirit in her newest manifestation.  The predatory relationship between the dark, evil appetites that BOB embodies and the light and love that Laura embodies is represented as part of the spiritual fabric of the world.  BOB’s cyclical predation of Laura is a horror we unleashed through our collective monstrousness, reaching a crescendo with the atomic bomb.

And then there’s the Woodsmen.  The radio broadcast of “This is the water and this is the well…” reminded me of Rob Zombie’s Lords of Salem.  I doubt there’s a deliberate connection there, but it was pretty vivid for me.  The audiovisual onslaught of the whole last part of the episode was enthralling.  I felt it in my bones.  It was nightmarish in the best possible way.

The soot-covered Woodsmen clearly evoke the blackened alley dweller from Mulholland Drive, about whom we are told in the Winkie’s diner scene, “he’s the one who’s doing it.”  One of Lynch’s most distinctive tropes is the byzantine web of shadowy figures pulling the levers of power behind the scenes.  In Mulholland Drive this is memorably represented through a bizarre set of characters holed up in weird little rooms relaying phone calls until they reach the kingpin figure, who is perched like a Bond villain as he awaits the call.  Or in Wild at Heart there’s the network of twisted assassins who commission hits with ceremonial silver dollars.  What’s emerging in Twin Peaks: The Return is a sort of origin story for the evil spirits that ultimately lie behind these webs of power.  It’s the soot-covered man in the alley–an agent of the Black Lodge– who’s really pulling the levers.

Sometimes Lynch’s shadowy figures are given motives—typically highly particular and very dark appetites, like Frank Booth’s mommy fixation.  But these motives are in a way just McGuffins.  What really drives these characters is the pure joy of evil, and BOB is the distilled essence of this drive.  Last night we witnessed his creation.  And it was the best thing ever.

 

Scattered Remarks on Twin Peaks: The Return (spoilers)

I’m really, really not interested in nitpicking Twin Peaks: The Return.  It’s too good.  Having a new hour of David Lynch every week is a gift, and it’s inappropriate to subject a gift to nitpicking.  Even if I tried to nitpick, I would fail, because I am totally incapable of seeing any flaws in this work.  Maybe they’re there, probably they’re not, but I’m enjoying it too much to notice or care.  I also don’t really want to defend the show against its detractors, because it boggles my mind that they even exist.  I’m more inclined to be like “fine, have it your way, more Twin Peaks: The Return for me.”  I am going to do a bit of defending anyways, against my inclination, because I can’t even handle living in the same world with people who don’t like Dougie Jones.  I told Angela that there’s allegedly a good deal of dislike for Dougie and she looked at me like she couldn’t understand the words coming out of my mouth.  Some remarks and observations:

  • Dougie Jones couldn’t be done more succinctly.  The central idea realized by the Dougie arc necessarily requires a lengthy development. Dougie wakes up in a suburban nightmare maze of imposing highrise office buildings and an ever expanding network of cul-de-sacs lined with prefabricated houses.  Like a more extreme version of John From Cincinnati, he isn’t able to form original thoughts, just repeat things he’s heard (typically the thing that has just been said to him).  There’s a degree of realism: it’s not like anyone thinks that Dougie is acting normally.  But the idea that comes into view is that this mode of functioning actually works reasonably well–it’s a passable strategy for navigating the suburban maze.  Josh suggested that we can think of him as a postmodern M. Hulot.  I have thoroughly enjoyed every bit of Dougie and I almost felt like something was missing in episode 7, where we only got a little bit of a Dougie fix.  Also, NB, Naomi Watts’ performance is brilliant.  She is sooooooo funny, and I love the way she plays off of MacLachlan’s Dougie.

 

  • I’m noticing quite a few references to Lynch’s films. Some clear examples: The Spike’s office hit that dominoes into a second hit is a reference to the black book/vacuum cleaner scene in Mulholland Drive.  The scene where we meet Richard Horne in the Bang Bang Bar and he aggressively gropes and threatens the girl who asks him for a light is a reference Bobby Peru’s introduction to Lula in Wild at Heart. Evil Coop’s creepy utterance “at your house” is a reference to Robert Blake’s creepy utterance of the same line in Lost Highway.  It’s a little bit more of a stretch but I had an urge to connect Balthazar Getty’s local crime kingpin to Frank Booth in Blue Velvet.  Let me know if you’ve noticed something I haven’t.  I haven’t found this aspect of new Twin Peaks too winky or gimmicky.  Rather, it helps promote this sense that this is a cumulative, career-encapsulating work.

 

  • Is Richard Horne the son of Evil Coop and Audrey Horne? I kinda got that implication from the revelation that Coop visited Audrey after leaving the Black Lodge 25 years earlier.  NB, I just googled this and it’s a fairly widespread fan theory.  Fuck fan theories in general, by the way.  Nothing is more antithetical to Lynchian aesthetics than trying to crack the code, especially in advance.  I do think that we are being invited to wonder about Richard’s parentage, though.

 

  • Laura Dern is a national treasure and I’m relishing her recent wave of activity. I watched Big Little Lies and thought she was more impressive than the rest of the cast combined, including the over-hyped Reese Witherspoon.  That show was all about Laura Dern, as far as I’m concerned.  Her scene with Evil Coop in Twin Peaks episode 7 was a tour de force and maybe the high point of the new series so far.

 

  • The story behind the Evolution of the Arm is amazing. Michael J. Anderson, the actor who played the Arm in the original series, has gone off the deep end.  He demanded a ridiculous amount of money to return in the new series, claiming that they couldn’t do Twin Peaks without him.  Lynch declined, which led to Anderson making all sorts of repulsive, unsubstantiated accusations on social media.  Lynch replaced him with a stick with a wad of bubblegum (or whatever it is) shaped like a brain stuck on top of it.   I guess they can do Twin Peaks without him after all.

 

  • I’ve seen a number of articles where people are trying to litigate which is better, old Twin Peaks or new Twin Peaks. This is a stupid question.  Old Twin Peaks was watered down with all sorts of non-Lynch creative input.  There are some great episodes that Lynch himself didn’t direct, but by far the best episodes are the ones that he did.  Only those episodes are anywhere near the quality of new Twin Peaks.  There’s a *ton* of disposable filler.  New Twin Peaks reflects a vastly more mature and developed artistic vision, and it is unadulterated and unrestrained by network censorship.  Nothing is disposable, it’s a unified work.  OF COURSE IT’S WAY THE FUCK BETTER.  OF COURSE.

 

  • Did anyone notice Andy wearing a Rolex? I’m sure there’s a surfeit of fan theories about that.  I’m not going to even hypothesize about what’s going on there, but it’s a bit of foreshadowing that I expect will be worth keeping in mind.  Side note:  Michael Cera as Wally Brando, dressed up like the damn Wild One, doing a damn Godfather accent, is one of the greatest little tangential moments of Lynch’s entire career.

 

  • One more thought about Dougie: there’s interesting continuity between his being guided by little lights (in the Mr. Jackpots scene and when he reviews the insurance files) and pre-lodge Coop’s mysticism.

 

 

Twin Peaks: The Return, initial reaction

Having watched the first three episodes of the Twin Peaks return late last night, I feel compelled to record my reaction before being exposed to anyone else’s thoughts.  I am saving the fourth episode for late tonight (the first four episodes are currently available on the showtime anytime app.  I guess that means I’ll have to wait two weeks for more?).  There are no major spoilers and I barely mention any details or particulars, but I personally wouldn’t want to read what follows before seeing at least the first two episodes for myself.

First, my expectations:

To borrow Alexander Nehamas’ metaphor, if the new Fast and Furious movie is the aesthetic equivalent of a one night stand, the recent work of Refn is casual dating, and Claire Denis is a long term relationship, then David Lynch is a marriage.  There are few artists whose work I’ve engaged with so extensively.  I remember well obsessing over Lost Highway with my brother Josh for pretty much the entirety of 1997.  Two of the most memorable cinematic experiences of my life were attending an early viewing of Mulholland Drive at Cornell Cinema with all my friends in a theater totally packed with people who could not fucking  handle it and seeing Inland Empire on Christmas day sitting between the illustrious Jacob Collins and the even more illustrious Wallace Shawn.  I couldn’t count how many times I’ve revisited his major works.  And if there’s one thing I know about David Lynch, it’s that he wouldn’t have done this if he didn’t have totally new ways of combining image and sound locked and loaded.  He is not an artist who repeats himself.  We all thought he was done after Inland Empire.  My sense was that he always felt restrained by the limitations and expenses of film and the studio production system, and that once he was finally liberated by digital video, this freedom enabled him to price himself out of the market.  That is, he was finally able to put down a totally unadulterated, uncompromised rendering of his vision, and it left him with nowhere to go.  UNTIL NOW, MOTHERFUCKERS!

What I expect to be the most remarkable about the Twin Peaks return is the scope.  We’ve always heard how he wanted Dune and Fire Walk With Me to each be 4+ hours long but the studio interfered.  With Inland Empire we finally got to see what he could do with a long running time, and it’s staggering.  I can’t even conceive of what 18 hours is going to look like.

There are three basic Lynch tones: weird fun, blissful serenity, and visceral nightmare.  His aesthetic depends on the juxtaposition and intermingling of the three.   The original Twin Peaks series was like 80% weird fun, 10% blissful serenity and 10% visceral nightmare.   I expect an inversion to 10% weird fun, 10% blissful serenity and 80% visceral nightmare.  I expect that viewers who like the original Twin Peaks series and Mulholland Drive but can’t handle Fire Walk With Me and Inland Empire are going to struggle.  And by “struggle” I mean they are going to have the inside of their skulls rearranged and wake up with night terrors.  I expect hard surrealist horror.

AND THAT’S EXACTLY WHAT I GOT.  It would be impossible to overstate how much I liked those first three episodes.  I arrived home from a conference in SLC having not gotten a decent night’s sleep in 5 days and totally strung out on strenuous mental activity and more socializing than I’ve done over the rest of my sabbatical combined (which was awesome, in case any of my aesthetic normativity peeps are reading this).  I saw my spacey, vaguely depressed mental state as more of an asset than a liability for approaching these episodes.  Lynch demands to be watched in the dark.  I decided to wait till the middle of the night, drink coffee, and pro-actively court delirium.  I wanted to experience these episodes like nightmares.  I wanted them to bleed into actual nightmares once I finally went to bed.  It was exactly the right thing to do.  I was up till 4am.  I got 5 hours of fitful sleep.  I had nightmares.  I kept waking up to vivid memories of some of the new images I had seen.  It was fantastic.

This is straight David Lynch black tar heroin.  I wasn’t in any way concerned that he’d let me down.  What would have been bad, and what I definitely didn’t think he’d do, is a nostalgia bomb.  I really, really, really did not want to see an easy lapse into the damn fine coffee/cherry pie routine.  I certainly did not want to hear about a fish in a percolator.  My confidence was rewarded when I heard the gloriously stilted Inland Empire-style dialogue between Andy and Lucy. And the fucking evolution of The Arm! Good god.

I am going to stop there and let this soak in further as I eagerly anticipate getting back into Lynch’s universe with the fourth episode late tonight.  I plan to blog about the Twin Peaks return throughout the season.  Stay tuned.

The Vampire Diaries and Billions

No spoilers.

The Vampire Diaries

The Vampire Diaries concluded on Friday with its 171st episode.   After bingeing the first season on Netflix I started watching the show regularly in 2010, and have kept up with it ever since.   I found it far, far, far superior to its sleazy HBO cousin, True Blood, which I also watched.   I don’t think there’s a single show out there that I’ve spent more time watching than The Vampire Diaries (I’d have to do some math on The Simpsons, but I doubt it).   With its 22 episode seasons, the show was on about half the year, and it’s been tremendously comforting to so often have a new VD episode waiting.

The Vampire Diaries has a large roster of endearing characters that anyone who makes it through all 8 seasons will surely think of as old friends.  That’s not what makes the show so special, though.  The Young Adult Serial Melodrama (YASM) is an afflicted genre.  YASMs frequently start out intriguing, with a mysterious new guy or girl moving to town to escape a dark past and two or more love triangles rapidly ensuing.  The problem, though, is that these shows almost invariably run into a brick wall once they’ve exhausted the available love triangle permutations.  First she’s with Dawson, then she’s with Pacey, and then what?  The initially wonderful Gossip Girl fell into repetition and became hard for me to take less than halfway through its run.  The O.C. may be the only pure instance of the genre that didn’t ever really suck.

The key, I think, is to combine the YASM with some other genre.  Veronica Mars knocked YASM/mystery fusion out of the park.  I don’t think there’s any question that the first two seasons of VM are the best young adult TV of all time.  The Vampire Diaries fused the YASM with supernatural fantasy and, while it didn’t burn as brightly as Veronica Mars, it was consistently great for 8 seasons.  I can’t recall as single bad episode.  There were certainly lulls, and it did get a tiny bit repetitive to be facing so many different versions of The Most Powerful Being in the Universe, but it always maintained its core appeal.  It benefited above all else from extremely clever writing by Kevin Williamson and Julie Plec.  Rather than repeat love triangle permutations to move the story forward, they dug ever deeper into the past for material.  It’s quite a resource for a writer to have 150 years of backstory available for the main characters along with thousands of years of background, and Williamson and Plec made effective use of it.  The distinctive merit of The Vampire Diaries is how expansively creative their writing has been.

Certainly, it gets ridiculous.  For one thing, death means nothing in The Vampire Diaries.  Characters die or are entrapped in prison dimensions only to be brought back a couple seasons later as a matter of routine.  There’s always an emotional goodbye featuring an indie-rock montage and a lot of hand-holding, and then an emotional welcome back featuring an indie-rock montage and a lot of hand-holding.   But the show knows how to be just cheeky enough about its own ridiculousness to make it fun rather than grating.  Enzo’s dead.  Don’t worry, he’ll be back, as soon as Bonnie can track down an ancient dagger made from the bones of one of his ancestors and then perform a summoning ritual during a lunar eclipse while a descendant of the city’s founder strikes a magical bell with a hammer enchanted by an ancient sorceress to open a portal to another dimension where Damon must free Enzo and then stab an evil warlock with the dagger and escape back through the portal before it closes.   Yes, another primary pleasure of the VD is its hilariously byzantine mythology.  There are a lot of rules, and a lot of deus ex machina solutions that bypass these rules.  It’s all great fun.  I’ll miss it.  Usually I would watch new episodes first thing in the morning, by myself, with a cup of coffee.  I frequently cackled with delight.  I even went along as best as I could with the prescribed emotional responses to the many, many, many indie rock montages.  I doubt I’ll ever find another show quite so comforting.

Billions

Naomi Klein hates Billions.  She tweeted (I paraphrase), “Is there a shittier show than Billions?  I mean besides the RNC in Cleveland.”

There’s no question that if you think steadfast adherence to “correct” progressive attitudes is a precondition for aesthetic value, then you will hate Billions.  Billions revels in brash immoralism.  It introduces you to some of the worst people in the world, and then coaxes you to root for them by pitting them against even worse people.  In season 2, we finally meet a likable character.  Taylor, a non-binary, super-genius intern who announces upon initial greeting that their pronouns are “they, them, and their,” is subjected to a non-stop gauntlet of macho office harassment while showing superlative talent.  Taylor is motivated by sincere, academic interest in market analysis as opposed to greed and narcissism, and one of the primary arcs of season 2 features Axe (the show’s billionaire hedge fund manager protagonist, played by Brody from Homeland) feeding Taylor’s most competitive urges and seeking to undermine their integrity.  The pleasure of Billions depends in large part on the ability to bracket one’s moral sensibility and relish the sinister dastardliness of it all.

So how does the show manage to generate sympathy for its supervillain protagonist?  By pitting him against the one thing more repulsive than a corrupt hedge fund manager: a corrupt federal prosecutor, played by the brilliant Paul Giamatti.  I used to be a Giamatti detractor (Sideways-era), but he’s really grown on me, and his work in Billions as U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhodes makes the show.  Rhodes is hell bent on bringing down Axe, not out of any concern for the greater good, but as part of a multi-generational vendetta spiced up by deep insecurity over his dominatrix wife’s personal connection with Axe, who employs her (!) as a workplace psychologist/performance coach.  Without giving anything away, I’ll say that Giamatti’s chess soliloquy late in season 1 is a high point of the show.

Billions approaches the world of the elite scumbag without irony or satire.  It certainly doesn’t attempt to valorize or defend its characters, but it also doesn’t judge them.  It doesn’t go in for the manic hysteria of The Wolf of Wall Street, but like Scorsese’s film, it wants to be caught up in the exhilaration of greed rather than to stand above it.  It has no interest in offering a trite critique of something we all already know is destroying human civilization.  Taken together these two works signal a reorientation of the gangster genre.  We’ve always enjoyed rooting for the bad guy in the right context.  Who didn’t root for Michael Corleone to get away clean after assassinating a crooked cop in an Italian restaurant?  The new gangsters are on Wall Street, and Billions gives us a chance to root for them against uncharismatic rivals and crooked prosecutors alike.  There’s backstabbing and out-maneuvering aplenty, and even a guest appearance by Metallica.  I can definitely understand where Naomi Klein is coming from, but I personally don’t plan on missing any episodes of Billions.